Jean Balchin

Jean Balchin is an English Literature Honours student at the University of Otago, Dunedin. When she's not busy painting, playing the piano or writing essays on Robert Burns, you can find her curled up with a recently published book on science. Alternatively, she'll be bugging her flatmates about their recent findings.

Caw Caw! Magpies living in bigger groups are no bird brains - News

Feb 13, 2018

A recent study conducted by the University of Exeter and the University of Western Australia has found that wild magpies living in larger groups are more intelligent than magpies living in smaller groups. The study also found smarter female magpies had greater reproductive success. The research suggests that the demands of living in complex social groups may play a role in the evolution of intelligence. What is the Australian magpie? The Australian magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) is a medium-sized black and white bird native to Australia and southern New Guinea. There are nine recognised supspecies, and the adult Australian magpie is a pretty robust bird ranging from 37 to 43 cm in length, with striking black and white plumage, brown eyes and a solid wedge-shaped bluish-white and black bill. Although the male and female are similar in appearance, they can be distinguished by differences in back markings. Read More

The Immortal Life of a Hydra - BioBlog

Feb 09, 2018

Students often get to look at hydras – tiny, fresh-water members of the group that includes sea anemones, jellyfish, corals, and the Portuguese man’o’war. All these cnidarians have a simple body-plan: two layers of true tissue with a jelly-like layer between them, a sac-like gut with a single opening that acts as both mouth and anus, and the characteristic stinging cells – cnidocytes – that give the taxon its name. And many of them rely on endosymbiotic algae for their survival, using some of the sugars that the algae produce by photosynthesis. This image shows part of a hydra’s tentacle – you can see not only its green algal symbionts, but also a halo of discharged stings. I’ve talked about hydras in class, when we’ve been discussing the main animal phyla – but  there’s something really unusual about them that I didn’t know … Read More

Global study finds women hold different views of harassment - News

Feb 08, 2018

A recent survey of 1,734 female undergraduate students across 12 countries has revealed that women have different perceptions of inappropriate behaviour by men across 47 different categories. For example, Australian woman are less likely to consider wolf-whistling in the street, being asked for sex at a social event and a man overstaying his welcome in their home as unacceptable behaviour than women in other countries. The research, conducted by Curtin University and Edith Cowan University, examined attitude towards behaviours ranging from forced sexual contact, physical harm and death threats to being asked out as friends, receiving gifts and a stranger striking up a conversation. According to lead author Dr Lorraine Sheridan, from the School of Psychology at Curtin University, the research found most female undergraduates agreed on the most overt inappropriate behaviours. However,  there was little consensus about … Read More

Deciphering the genetic landscape of Ireland - News

Feb 07, 2018

FineSTRUCTURE analysis demonstrates that haplotypes mirror geography across the British Isles as illustrated in A.) FineSTRUCTURE clustering dendrogram B.) Principle Component space. Administrative boundaries in map sourced from GADM (https://gadm.org). A recent study in PLOS Genetics has revealed a previously hidden genetic landscape of Ireland, shaped through geography and historical migrations. The genome-wide study, led by Ross Byrne and Russell McLaughlin of Trinity College Dublin in Ireland has discovered distinct genetic groups within the Irish population. In the 10,000 years that people have continuously inhabited the Ireland, distinct cultural and geographic regions have been established. However previous studies failed to find any clear genetic groups within the Irish population. In this most recent study however, the researchers took a more detailed look at genetic diversity across the islands, analysing genetic variation across almost 1,000 Irish genomes and over 6,000 … Read More

Taking a broader approach to depression and bipolar disorder - News

Feb 07, 2018

According to the authors of a guideline summary on major depression published in the Medical Journal of Australia, doctors should take a broader approach to the management of depression in their patients, with treatments “tailored to depressive subtypes and administered with clear steps in mind.” The summary, written by a large group of authors representing the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP), was led by Professor Gin Malhi, from the Northern Clinical School at the University of Sydney and the CADE Clinic at Royal North Shore Hospital. It includes guideline summaries on major depression and on bipolar disorder, published online by the MJA. Both summaries are abridged versions of the RANZCP’s 2015 clinical guidelines, directed “broadly at primary care physicians”. Guidelines for Depression Depression, as defined by the Ministry of Health, is a mental illness where you … Read More

Microplastics causing big problems for iconic ocean giants - News

Feb 06, 2018

According to a new analysis for the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, microplastics in our oceans are posing a significant risk to filter-feeding marine animals like manta rays and whale sharks. Microplastics are small plastic pieces less than five millimetres long . If you’ve ever bought a shower scrub, or exfoliator, you’ve probably heard of microbeads too. Microbeads are a type of microplastic, and are very tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic that are added as exfoliants to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes. Led by Murdoch University PhD student Elitza Germanov, the study warns that microplastics could be hazardous because they contain toxic chemicals. These chemicals and pollutants can accumulate over time and impede on biological processes in the animals, leading to stunted growth, development, and reproduction, as well as reduced fertility. Krill feeding under high phytoplankton … Read More

‘Forgotten’ antibiotic offers hope against worst superbugs - News

Feb 01, 2018

An antibiotic virtually forgotten since its discovery 40 years ago could help develop new drugs against life-threatening infections caused by some of the world’s most dangerous superbugs. What are Superbugs? So-called “superbugs” possess antimicrobial resistance (AMR), the ability of a microbe to resist the effects of the medication used previously to treat them. These resistant microbes are difficult to treat, and require higher doses or alternative medications. Both of these options can be more expensive or more toxic. Resistance may arise through one of three mechanisms: Natural resistance in certain types of bacteria. Genetic mutation. One species acquiring resistance from another. The Study Researchers from the University of Queensland Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) synthesised the antibiotic, and increased its effectiveness against extensively drug-resistant bacteria. They then collaborated with Monash University to evaluate the drug using animal models of infection. Read More

How palaeolithic humans shaped the modern genome - News

Jan 31, 2018

When we think about our ancestry, we think about our grandmothers and grandfathers – and, if we have photo albums nearby, or a family member interested in genealogy, we might know a bit more about our great-grandmothers, great-grandfathers, and so on. I remember traveling around Scotland a few years ago, and chancing upon a small churchyard. Every second gravestone, most of them crumbling and tilted over with age, had my mother’s maiden name on it. It was the strangest thing, looking at these weathered old stones and thinking of the bones that lay beneath them. I realised that I shared DNA with these people under the earth. They had shaped who I was today. DNA sequencing technology is revealing how our modern human genome has been shaped by none other than our Stone Age ancestors. A review of 24 palaeolithic … Read More

Buzz Off! Mosquitoes might learn to fear the smell of swatters - News

Jan 29, 2018

  Most of us think of mosquitoes as irritating little pests, plaguing us during the summer months when open windows are a necessity. But new research, reported in Current Biology on January 25 shows that mosquitoes can learn to associate a particular odour with an unpleasant mechanical shock akin to being swatted. As a result, they’ll avoid that scent the next time. “Once mosquitoes learned odours in an aversive manner, those odours caused aversive responses on the same order as responses to DEET, which is one of the most effective mosquito repellents,” says Jeffrey Riffell at the University of Washington, Seattle. “Moreover, mosquitoes remember the trained odours for days.” If you’ve ever been on a family holiday, or camping with your friends under the stars, you may have … Read More

If music be the food of love, play on - News

Jan 26, 2018

From the frosty swathes of Iceland to the deep forests of Aotearoa, music may be heard reverberating through every culture and peoples. Songs serve many different purposes, as we all know; accompanying a dance, soothing an infant, or expressing love. A recent study in Current Biology wherein recordings were analysed from all over the world reveals that vocal songs sharing one of those many functions tend to sound similar to one another, regardless of which culture they come from. As a result, people listening to those songs in any one of 60 countries could make accurate inferences about them, even after hearing only a quick 14-second sampling. The findings appear consistent with the existence of universal links between form and function in vocal music, according to the researchers: “Despite the staggering diversity of music influenced by countless cultures and readily available to … Read More